Trans Fat Fighting

Fat is not a four-letter word, but in this country, it's treated like one. As a country, we are obsessed with fat, yet we are getting fatter and fatter.

No matter your shape or size, fat does play an important positive role in our diets. We all need fat to help maintain healthy skin and hair, body temperature, healthy cell function, plus we need the help of fat for energy storage and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

Naturally occurring fats come from food -- meat, dairy, eggs, nuts, some fruit. There's saturated fat, which increases cholesterol levels, and then there's unsaturated fat, which helps keep cholesterol levels down and lower the risk of heart disease. There are lots of factors that contribute to our overall cholesterol level (which, according to the American Heart Association, ideally should be below 200 mg/dL) -- genetics, physical activity, and of course, diet.

Of course, life is never that simple, and we all get fat from time to time. But it's my belief, that if we all just ate naturally occurring fats -- be it meat or plant based, we probably wouldn't be so darn fat.

Which leads me to man-made fat, also known as trans fat. Simply defined, a trans fat occurs when hydrogen is added to a liquid fat, which allows it to remain in a semi-solid state at room temperature and acts as a stabilizer to extend the shelf life of all kinds of processed foods.

Until January 1 of this year, consumers didn't know by reading a nutrition label whether a box of cookies or your favorite bottled salad dressing contained trans fat. The big deal is that trans fat has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It simultaneously raises LDL cholesterol levels (the bad kind) and lowers HDL (heart healthy) cholesterol levels. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now requires food manufacturers to list trans fat on nutrition labels.

According to its Web site, the "FDA estimates that 3 years after the effective date, January 2006, trans fat labeling would annually prevent from 600 to 1,200 heart attacks and save 250-500 lives. Based on this estimate, this rule will realize a cost savings of $900 million to $1.8 billion per year in medical costs, lost productivity, and pain and suffering."

With the government officially on board as trans fat police, does this mean that we'll stop being so fat? But what about fast food -- does the same level of scrutiny and label requirements apply at your favorite burger and fries joint?

Of course, if you've read books such as "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser and "Fat Land" by Greg Critser, or watched the movie "Super Size Me," you know that eating fast food with any degree of regularity will make you fat. And that's because the food is cooked with hydrogenated oils, which are loaded with our friend, the trans fat.

But in the eyes of the government, the fast food world is exempt from the official trans fat microscope. According the FDA Web site, "Restaurants are not required to provide full nutrition labeling for their food products, unless nutrient claims are made, such as 'Low Fat' or 'Low Sodium.' To know which fats are being used in the preparation of the food you're eating or ordering, a good tip to remember is 'ask before you order'."

Sounds like the trans fat Wild West. Recently, though, a few individuals have decided to take trans fat matters into their own hands - and legislative bodies.

Last month, Chicago City Council Alderman Edward Burke, introduced a bill proposing a ban on trans fat in restaurants, stating that such a ban would "protect its citizens from the ravages of unhealthy trans fats by banning their use in restaurants."

The bill has been received less than warmly by many of Burke's colleagues in Council and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. This week, Burke agreed to a watered-down version of the bill that would affect only restaurants with $20 million in sales, thus eliminating smaller, independently owned eateries.

If the bill were passed, Chicago would become the first city in the country to enact a mandated ban on trans fat. In 2003, Denmark became the first country to ban trans fat, and Canada has recently introduced legislated limits.

I asked "Fat Land" author Greg Critser his thoughts on the Chicago bill. His response: "It is a good idea, but it will be impossible to implement and enforce without a dramatic expansion in the city's restaurant inspection service. About the only thing I've seen expanding in Chicago is something else -- and it ain't its famed broad shoulders."

So what do you think? Should the government get involved in the banning of trans fat? Should the FDA requirements of listing trans fat extend to fast food and big chain restaurants? Should we as a country do anything about the trans fat phenomenon?

Share your thoughts in the comments area below.

P.S. Some companies are making changes on their own. Wendy's has announced plans to use a soy-corn blend oil for its French fries and breaded chicken items, beginning in August. The switchover will take effect in Wendy's locations in the United States and Canada.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 21, 2006; 10:32 AM ET Food Politics
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Yes, fast food restaurants should be required to display and have available nutritional information, including trans fats. Now that trans fats are displayed on food labels, I no longer buy the products containing them. Perhaps when more people do that with fast foods, those companies will take the initiative to remove them from their products.

Posted by: web brat | July 21, 2006 12:29 PM

250-500 lives a year?! With the population above 300,000,000 that's literally about one in a million. With about 3,000,000 deaths annually and 40% of those due to heart disease that means that the abolition of trans-fat would prevent about one in 10,000 deaths and only 1 in every 4,000 deaths caused by heart disease. It's hardly the silver bullet to vanquish the country's #1 killer. That said, I don't like trans fat. Lard makes a better, flakier biscuit than crisco and peanut oil is a great medium for deep frying. But let's not make trans-fats the scapegoat for our poor health.

Posted by: BFair | July 21, 2006 12:45 PM

Certainly, given the scientific data about the dangers of trans fat, it should be kept out of foods the same way the govt. banned certain food colors and sweetners because of the health problems associated with them. The bottom line is that food manufacturers use hydrogentated oils because they're cheaper. But as with the environment, when costs collide with doing the right thing, costs usually win out.

Posted by: ralph | July 21, 2006 1:33 PM

I'm all for truth in labeling, combined with an active consumer awareness/education campaign. That way, the consumer can make the choice whether or not to consume tran fats, but the government is not taking away our right to choose to eat trans fats if we want to.

Personally, I don't eat much pre-processed food, so it's not really an issue to me... until I want to make a Brown Sugar Peach Pie and Dame Julia's pie crust recipe calls for half butter and half shortening. I've tried all-butter in pie crusts, and I just don't like it as much. And I want to be able to eat real pie crust three or four times in the summer, dagnabbit.

I haven't tried the trans-fat-free shortening that's available these days, but I will the next time I make pie crust. Anyone have a report?

Maybe I should just go back to lard... it's high in saturated fat but doesn't have trans fats... :-)

Posted by: Divine Ms. K. | July 21, 2006 1:48 PM

I don't think there should necessarily be a ban on trans fats in restaurants, but restaurants should have publicize if certain food items contain trans fats. Additionally, the FDA need to revise its rule that food products with less than 0.5g trans fats can mark their nutrition information as 0g trans fats. That's just allowing them to be deceitful. I've seen a ton of products that say they have 0g trans fats, but when I look at the ingredients I see partially hydrogenated oils listed, which means that the product clearly has trans fats in it.

Posted by: RZ | July 21, 2006 6:44 PM

My complaint is sodium. The fast food restaurants seem to feel the need to 'feed' their customers menu items loaded with sodium. Wendy's has a baked potato with sour cream and chives that has less than 100 mg. of sodium. I haven't found anyplace else with a product that low in sodium.

Yes, we all need to watch the fats, but sodium is as much a killer...just my thoughts.

Posted by: Pat | July 21, 2006 8:25 PM

I don't think we need the government to do any more than require full nutritional disclosure for restaurants. Then the restaurants can use what they want and the consumer can make an informed choice.

People, we do NOT need to the government to keep deciding what is and is not best for us. We just need the information and then we need to take personal responsibility for our choices.

Posted by: pat | July 24, 2006 5:50 PM

Just needed to note that the "pat" who posted about personal responsibility is not the same "Pat" who made the prior post. I didn't notice the previous poster's name. :-)

Posted by: pat | July 24, 2006 5:52 PM

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